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In Upstate N.Y., a test for Democrats running on abortion to stop GOP wave

Tuesday’s special election in a swing district has become a crucial testing ground for both major parties’ political strategies around abortion — an issue that could factor heavily into the midterm elections

Democratic candidate Pat Ryan, right, speaks during a rally in Kingston, N.Y. Ryan, the Ulster County executive, is running in a special election for the 19th Congressional District that became vacant when Antonio Delgado, third from left, accepted the position of New York State Lieutenant Governor. (Cindy Schultz for The Washington Post)

MONTICELLO, N.Y. — When the Supreme Court’s conservative majority overturned Roe v. Wade, Democrats here quickly mobilized to make the Aug. 23 special election for the U.S. House a referendum on abortion rights.

After the decision, Democratic nominee Pat Ryan unveiled new campaign signs, white on pink, that read “CHOICE IS ON THE BALLOT.” The state Democratic Party’s own signs show a red slash over “Roe v. Wade” with the message: “This is what happens when YOU don’t vote! Vote blue in ’22!” To Ryan, the 40-year old Democratic Ulster County executive, the strategy was clear: “We’re going to continue to focus on an issue that affects tens of millions of women and people and families.”

When Republican Marc Molinaro heard about the court’s decision — just three weeks after he became his party’s nominee in the 19th Congressional District — he said he was surprised. “I had thought, like most Americans, that this was settled,” said Molinaro, 46, as he campaigned at Monticello’s annual Bagel Festival.

Now, he is campaigning on other issues he says are more pressing, such as inflation and crime. “The Supreme Court passed this issue back to the states,” he said. “The states have to act. This state has acted, and broad access is preserved here in New York.”

Tuesday’s special election in a swing district — coming on a busy day of primaries or runoffs in several states — will be a closely watched preview of both major parties’ midterm political strategies around abortion in the wake of the Supreme Court decision to overturn the constitutional right to end a pregnancy. It is shaping up as the last big electoral test before the November midterms of Democrats’ attempts to channel anger over the decision — and subsequent state bans on abortion — into votes for their candidates, and of Republican efforts to keep the focus on different matters.

Kansans voted to protect abortion rights during their Aug. 2 primary. Those results could be a sign of what’s to come for more states in the 2022 midterms. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

After closer-than-expected special elections for U.S. House in right-leaning districts in Nebraska and Minnesota, and after the drubbing of an antiabortion ballot measure in conservative Kansas, Democrats across the country are increasingly campaigning on protecting and expanding abortion rights, and some Republicans have grown nervous about the potential effects in November.

Covering all or part of 11 counties in Upstate New York, the 19th district is of considerable interest to party strategists, since it went for President Biden by just 1.5 points in 2020 after voting for former president Donald Trump in 2016 and former president Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans said the end of Roe v. Wade represented a “major loss of rights” for women, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll conducted last month, but those who support abortion access were less certain they would vote this fall. Abortion is legal in New York. But in the fight for this seat, which opened up when Democrat Antonio Delgado vacated it to become lieutenant governor, a debate opened over the potential for federal legislation codifying or banning abortion.

Molinaro, the GOP executive of Democratic-leaning Dutchess County and a former gubernatorial nominee, is downplaying the debate over abortion in a race he’s been favored to win. Unlike some Republicans in close races, who’ve endorsed abortion bans with few or no restrictions, he does not support a national abortion ban — or, he says, any effort for Congress to “impose its will on the states.” He did oppose abortion rights as a state legislator, which Democrats point to as evidence of how he’d vote given a chance in Washington.

On the trail, Molinaro seeks to emphasize that a victory for him wouldn’t flip the Democrats’ narrow House majority, keeping them in control of the agenda for the rest of the year. At a debate with Ryan, he cited Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) to suggest that any federal abortion law would be thrown out by courts, attempting to nullify the issue.

Campaigning against crime and rising prices on Democrats’ watch, Republicans in New York have said that abortion rights won’t be at risk if voters put them back in power at the state or federal level. “I think it’s an important issue, and it’s very important to women,” said Republican Assemblyman Chris Tague, who recently campaigned with Molinaro. “But it’s not the only issue, and it’s not the issue driving voters.”

People Molinaro speaks with “continue to feel anxiety and pressure because of the high cost of living,” the Republican congressional candidate said. “That’s what I hear everywhere I go. The only things that have changed over the last several months are the district lines, and my opponent.”

Ryan and his Democratic allies have put forth very different ideas. “The dynamics of the conversation have shifted because of the Dobbs decision, and the proposal for a national abortion ban,” he said, referring to the Supreme Court ruling. In his first ad, the candidate turned that theory into a question: “How can we be a free country if the government tries to control women’s bodies?”

At a recent rally for Ryan in the liberal city of Kingston, Delgado told voters that the country was watching the Hudson Valley, to see if the energy that helped him flip the district in 2018 was still crackling. “You gotta fight back,” Delgado said. “I would hope that the threat of a national ban on abortion would give you some energy.”

Delgado won the district twice, running ahead of the Democratic ticket in 2018 — when Molinaro, then running for governor, led the Republican ticket. But his party was pessimistic when the special election began.

Eleven days after Gov. Kathy Hochul called the election, Democrats lost a formerly safe seat in South Texas to now-Rep. Mayra Flores (R-Tex.) — a perfect storm of voter malaise, a GOP nominee who had been raising money before the seat became vacant, and a lack of investment from national Democrats.

In an interview, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said that Democrats would win the Texas seat in November, while Republicans in New York were “spending a fortune to win a seat that should be easy” to flip.

“I think Pat Ryan might surprise a lot of people,” Maloney added. “And if he does, boy, that’s going to be a real telltale sign of what’s to come.”

The Hudson Valley race wasn’t a DCCC priority, either; the debacle around the state’s new maps, redrawn by court order after judges threw out a friendly Democratic map, split the district into two different seats for the November election. While both Ryan and Molinaro were strong recruits, they won’t be running against each other in November — Ryan is contesting the new 18th Congressional District, which includes his Ulster County home, and Molinaro was uprooting his family to run in a different version of the 19th district.

But events over the summer made Democrats rethink the campaign. Ryan’s donations surged after the Supreme Court decision; at the start of August, both candidates had raised about $1.6 million, and Ryan said that he had surpassed $2 million by the middle of the month. The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act also jolted Democrats, with Ryan releasing his own inflation-fighting plan and joining Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) for a triumphant jobs announcement in the heart of his county.

“You made this community a promise, and you delivered on that promise,” Ryan said last week, after Schumer praised his work for the county.

Both parties saw the race getting closer in August, as the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund poured $1.2 million and $650,000, respectively, into anti-Ryan and pro-Molinaro ads.

“We are focused entirely on Molinaro winning in November,” said CLF spokesman Calvin Moore, “and spending now is putting him in a position to do that.”

There has been no independent polling on the race, but both sides have released internal numbers that suggest a post-Dobbs bounce for Ryan. While Molinaro is considered the favorite, Democrats say they think Ryan is competitive.

“We are seeing people incredibly sad and upset because so many of them fought for this,” said state Sen. Michelle Hinchey, a Democrat whose district overlaps with the open House seat. “They thought this was settled law, regardless of party. They thought the world was a bit better for their children and their grandchildren. All of that work, all of that comfort that they felt, is now out the window.”

Republican advertising has avoided the abortion issue altogether. The National Republican Congressional Committee has focused on crime, linking Ryan to the state’s cashless bail changes and highlighting an op-ed he wrote after the murder of George Floyd that criticized the “militarization” of police forces.

“Hurting cops. Helping criminals,” a narrator says in the ad. Samantha Bullock, a spokeswoman for the NRCC, said that “every poll shows this election is still about the kitchen-table issues impacting New Yorkers every day.”

Ryan and Democrats have campaigned on the party’s recent wins, and against a theoretical GOP majority unleashed by the Supreme Court — not just on abortion rights, but on gun laws, another conservative victory from the new 6-3 majority. Ryan, a U.S. Military Academy graduate and Iraq War veteran, has pledged to ban “weapons of war” that were “designed originally and perpetually to kill human beings.”

Democrats have long been wary of that messaging in largely-rural districts, where the party has lost some traditional supporters. But in this summer’s special elections in Nebraska and Minnesota, both in districts that voted for Trump by double digits, Democrats lost more narrowly, beating expectations with high turnout in small cities and suburbs.

Ryan’s party is hoping for the same to play out in the Hudson Valley — newly home to thousands of New York City transplants, who during the pandemic lost their appetite for small apartments and crowded streets.

In Ryan’s Ulster County, from February 2020 to February 2022, the number of registered Democrats rose by 3,000, while Republicans added just 501 active voters. In Molinaro’s Dutchess County, it was comparably lopsided; since February 2020, Democrats had added more than 4,500 voters, and Republicans had added 1,001. Newer data isn’t available, but Democrats across the country have seen more women registering to vote, and voting against Republicans, in the wake of Dobbs.

“People are fired up,” said Laurie Boris, a 60-year old writer and website administrator in Kingston who was voting for Ryan. “The women are mad. And when the women are mad, they vote. We saw it in Kansas, and we hope it happens here.”

But about half of the district’s vote usually comes from more conservative areas, and Democrats were still downplaying expectations for Tuesday.

At the Bagel Festival, most of the people who met Molinaro said that they were concerned more about the candidate than issues — from former president Donald Trump’s fate after an FBI search of his home to abortion rights.

“I’m pro-choice, but I’m a Republican,” said Jim Dippolito, the 46-year old owner of a lemonade vendor, who said he’d struggled to find summer employees. “I have no opinion on [abortion rights], other than it’s getting blown out of proportion, because you can still do it in New York state.”

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign on Tuesday, experts helped us game out what would happen if he wins again.

Key issue: Abortion rights advocates scored major victories in the first nationwide election since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Here’s how abortion access fared on the ballot in nine states.